FROM THE ARCHIVE

Taking lead on trust reform proves tough for Griles

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WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2001

In a sworn testimonial sent to a federal court a little over a month ago, Deputy Secretary of Interior J. Steven Griles proclaimed he was in charge of trust reform, an 11th hour declaration that was the result of a concerted but rushed effort by top department officials to answer the question on everyone's mind at the time.

Spurred on by a series of highly critical reports and the widely published doubts of a federal judge, the acceptance of a such a monumental task by someone who had only been on the job three months was no easy matter. A Republican lobbyist and former Reagan appointee with more experience consulting with corporations than with Indian nations, Griles jumped head first to try and get his hands on a solution to a problem no administration has been able to fix.

No one assumed the task would be smooth sailing, but in the weeks that have ensued since that last minute embrace, Griles has proven to many that his effort to speak in "one voice" for the Interior has been, at best, tenuous. At worst, the campaign has failed, with the court, Congress and Indian Country unwilling to accept his influence with open arms.

Among the complaints lodged against Griles' are the conflicting messages he and other top officials have sent about trust reform. Critics note the clear differences in statements made to a federal judge overseeing the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust on one hand and to tribes worried about their own assets on the other.

Regarding the appointment of a receiver for the individual accounts, government attorneys have argued such a drastic step would violate the separation of powers clause of the U.S. Constitution. But in meetings with tribes, Griles and top officials have engaged in what one tribal chairman has called a scare tactic reminiscent of the termination era: Accept our proposal or watch your sovereign rights disappear.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb expressed this view at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians last month, when he urged tribes to oppose a receiver. He said U.S. District Judge Lamberth was on the "brink" of taking over 300,000 individual and 1,400 tribal trust accounts -- and tribal sovereignty along with them.

"Because right now those are two different kinds of accounts, right?" said McCaleb. "But as far as the court is concerned, they are both in the same canoe."

"And if one of them goes over the falls to a receiver," he continued, "both of them go over the falls to a receiver."

Complaints about Griles extend to his own subordinates, particularly over a department wide computer shutdown he authorized in response to a court order requiring the protection of individual Indian assets. Regional Bureau of Indian Affairs officials criticized the broad directive, which has caused the delay of tens of thousands of checks to IIM account holders.

At the same time, some tribal leaders have given Griles credit for putting up with their gripes. He was very "forthright" and open to suggestions at the recent convention of the National Congress of American Indians, said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington.

But with the department moving to implement the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) as quickly as it can without tribes and Congress resorting to preventative measures, Griles is looking to give up his job soon as possible. Once a new Assistant Secretary for the agency is in place, Lamberth might finally have his question resolved, or so goes the thinking.

"One person be in charge might be an improvement, right?" said Lamberth last week about the reorganization.

"I think that's a solid assumption," responded Tommy Thompson, the second highest-ranking trust official within the Interior. "As I watch Mr. Griles' discomfort day to day."

Today on Indianz.Com:
For BIA, a working holiday (12/19)

Department of Interior Profile:
Deputy Secretary: J. Steven Griles (3/9)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Judge orders Interior reconnect (12/18)
Interior computer agreement dropped (12/14)
Griles in charge of IT reform (12/11)
DOI Shutdown: 'We're Hurting Tribes' (12/7)
Judicial role in Norton's fate recognized (11/30)
Griles: Receiver ends sovereign relationship (11/29)
Griles taking lead on trust reform (11/5)
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